The San Diego City Council voted this week to allow voters to decide the fate of the historic Mt. Soledad Cross overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla.

The vote represented the newest chapter in a long line of legal battles to remove the cross, led by ACLU attorney James McElroy, who represents an atheist seeking to remove the Christian symbol from public lands.

The legal battles date back to 1989.

Essentially, the voters will decide whether they want to transfer the property to the National Park System as a war memorial.

For more than 50 years, the site has been recognized by the public as a place where war veterans are honored for their service to the United States.

The Mt. Soledad Association manages the site where plaques recognize war veterans who served in the last century. Most of the veterans recognized are from the greater San Diego area.

Last November, two Republican congressmen from San Diego County, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Rep. Randy Cunningham, added a provision to an appropriations bill to allow the city to designate the site as a national war memorial.

If the citizens of San Diego agree with this proposal, the site will be maintained by the National Park
System. The bill was signed into law by President Bush in December.

Representatives from the Mt. Soledad Association and the park system were in Washington last week to discuss a working plan to manage the site.

Opponents of the transfer, including the ACLU, contend it is illegal and unconstitutional. However, a lawyer for the Thomas More Center, Charles LiMandri, contends there is legal precedent for protecting religious symbols that already are on federal land.

While the debate on religious symbols on public land slowly is working its way through the courts, the proposition to transfer city property to the federal government will be decided by San Diego voters July 26.

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, who is leaving office in July, says “it may provoke additional litigation, but some things are worth fighting for.”

Murphy was a supporter of a referendum that forced the city council to revisit the issue. The referendum sparked a record 89,000 petitions to request that the cross not be dismantled from its present site.

The initiative rescinded an earlier vote by the council that would have removed it.

The referendum, put together in just a month, was widely supported by San Diego radio talk-show hosts Roger Hedgecock, Rick Roberts and Mark Larson and Los Angeles host Paul McGuire.

Slightly more than 33,000 verified signatures were required for the referendum to be successful, based on a registered voter base of approximately 650,000 voters.

Related story:

Congress gets into ACLU cross brouhaha

Vet sues to save mountaintop cross

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.